Creating a Pipeline to True Workplace Diversity
Providing resources, offering acceptance, and involving people of color are keys to making your company more diverse
Here’s a common scenario: I attend a panel about the future of design and tech. During the talk, the panelists give many insightful, provocative answers to the various topics up for discussion. However, whenever they are asked about diversity and its impact on the future of the industry, the panel goes silent. Finally, one panelist changes the topic to “diversity in thought” in the workplace, and the conversation continues.
The phrase “diversity in thought” is a relatively new invention that perplexes me. Diversity in thought is the idea that our strategic thinking and perspectives are formulated by our culture, experience, and background. So to avoid homogeneous thinking and ideas and craft better solutions, an organization must recruit and hire people with multiple perspectives. Sounds like straight-up diversity, creating a workplace where people of different ethnicities, genders, abilities, etc., are represented, right? But in my experience, “diversity in thought” is used as a cop-out, a way to hire, for instance, two white guys who come from different hometowns and have different hobbies and thus are “diverse.” It should be obvious that this isn’t an acceptable approach.
“The most valuable leap we can make as an industry is to reach out to creativity that hasn’t been trained at expensive schools, and so I hate when people say, ‘We’re having a hard time finding or filling our pipeline with diversity.’ Well, where are you looking, because there are millions of extremely creative, talented could-be-famous art directors, designers, experience designers in the world that just need a chance to train, and we’re just not looking in the right places,” said Chloe Gottlieb, an ally and director of product design for G-Suite at Google, at the 2018 D&AD Awards in London while speaking on how diversity drives innovation.
I wholeheartedly agree with her. I’m a black woman from New Orleans who was not trained at an expensive art school, but rather is primarily a self-taught interaction designer who navigated herself into the New York design world. That’s why I emphasized in our first frogNY Diversity and Inclusion group meeting that we need to tackle the diversity issue — and by that I mean actual diversity, not a watered-down “diversity in thought” — by providing visibility, accessibility, and training for marginalized communities to create a path into our industry.
For our second Breaking Barriers event at frogNY, we wanted to expand upon the conversation we started at that first Diversity and Inclusion group meeting. We invited three panelists to shape the conversation through their stories and profound advice: Zahra Bukhari, designer at GHD Partners and co-founder of the Muslim Feminists for the Arts; Steve Lucin, founder and creative director of Support Creativity; and Quardean Lewis-Allen, founder and CEO of Made in Brownsville. Below are three takeaways on how we can open up the industry to people in marginalized communities, fostering diverse workplaces for current and future employees.
Create accessible resources for the next generation of POCs
In our first Breaking Barriers discussion, we learned that a diverse design industry begins with an affordable education. Panelist Steve Lucin took on this problem directly.
Steve was mentoring high school students in animation in Harlem when one of his mentees hit a substantial financial roadblock for education because he was an undocumented immigrant. Steve began to save $100 a month in a scholarship fund. Since 2013, his company, Support Creativity, has provided $30k in scholarships so any passionate creative, either documented or undocumented, can have an opportunity to nurture their creative skills.
Simultaneously, the industry must build connections and provide opportunities to communities of color. Many black and brown people are unaware of the other tech career paths besides software development, despite the fact that 43% of the job openings in the tech industry are non-technical, like marketing and design jobs.
Quardean Lewis-Allen, who runs a creative agency called Made in Brownsville, provides STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) training within the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn.
“There’s a saying about Brownsville,” Quardean said. “Brownsville measures all of its success by your ability to get away from it.” However, the program produces marketable STEAM skills and builds a sense of confidence that these experiences are not just for the elite but also the black and brown youth in that neighborhood.
In marginalized communities, we often do not have access to or knowledge of the critical person to teach us or provide us access to these opportunities. Therefore, it is crucial for POC professionals and allies to organize or partner with organizations like Steve’s and Quardean’s to foster the next generation of creatives.
Companies in other industries do this; it is time that our industry does the same.
Help POCs feel secure bringing their identity into “white spaces”
Many POCs, including myself, have at one point changed themselves to assimilate and fit into “white spaces.” Whether it’s changing our way of speaking or altering our natural hair, we hide our identity and culture to advance in workplaces not built for us.
It is a company’s responsibility to create an inclusive environment, but we as POCs also have to stop trying to be more “palatable” to those who choose to ignore us or view our backgrounds as lesser in the workplace or classroom.
Zahra Bukhari, a South Asian Muslim woman, was repeatedly misunderstood by her design teachers because her designs did not reflect Eurocentric standards. Instead of conforming to her professors’ standards, Zahra continued to create Islam-inspired designs. Through her work, she combatted the distorted views and politicization of Muslims, in particular Muslim women. On a predominantly non-Muslim campus, Rutgers University, she formed her organization Muslim Feminists for the Arts (MFA) to continue the conversation with a broader audience.
As we, as POCs, embrace our authentic selves, we also liberate others to view themselves as belonging, not trespassing, in “white spaces.” Steve Lucin, who grew up in the projects on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, invites creatives from his scholarship program and his neighborhood to his office.
“I bring people of color to my office in Times Square,” he said. “I’m trying to bridge [the narrative] through more exposure… I tell them to come to check out my office. I made it here, you see me here. You can be here too. You have a connection — you’re not isolated. You’re connected to me, come through, let’s build stuff.”
We assimilate as a mechanism to excel in places not made for us; however, as Elaine Welteroth states in her new book, More Than Enough, “When you exist in spaces that weren’t built for you, remember sometimes that just being you is the revolution.”
Bring POCs into conversations about company procedure and policy
I know this might seem obvious, but the number of companies with all- or majority-white, as well as all- or majority-male, talent departments and C-suites tasked with solving the diversity gap is frankly baffling.
In the design industry, we practice various methods of revealing and solving problems, like having co-participatory workshops, creating journey maps, and holding brainstorming sessions, with our clients and users. So why don’t we apply these methods to companies’ internal processes?
When Quardean returned to his childhood neighborhood of Brownsville after completing his degree at Cornell, he held co-participatory workshops with leaders and residents of the neighborhood. The practice helped him reconnect, build empathy, and brainstorm solutions for needs that are a top priority in the community.
“You have to realize that the people who are closest to the problem are at the forefront of the solution,” Quardean said. “There are brilliant people on the ground in these places.”
There’s no excuse to not involve POCs and other minority groups in planning the hiring process. If there is an extreme lack within your company, partner with minority-run organizations who specialize in this issue to help your company identify gaps and create better solutions.
And if you are a part of any minority community, make damn sure to get involved in these conversations within your company.
Having diverse representation is the beginning of creating equity on client projects, hiring procedures, and company culture. Seek it. Demand it.
Whether she is demanding to participate on design projects that affect black and brown youths or collaborating with others to influence company’s culture, Zahra, one of two POCs at her company, makes her voice heard.
“If we want to understand design as a whole and how it’s practiced in the world, we need to widen our scope. We need more POCs, more people who don’t identify as a white straight man,” she said.
Having diverse representation is the beginning of creating equity on client projects, hiring procedures, and company culture. Seek it. Demand it. And collaborate with others to implement the necessary change.
The fact is simple: If recruiters want non-homogeneous thinking in their company, then they need to find and hire people from different genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, educational backgrounds, and socio-economic upbringings. Our experiences and points of view contribute to the creative process in a vital way and create true diversity.
In order to build the bridge between marginalized communities and our creative industry:
- Create or partner with organizations that are providing training and financial resources to the next generation of POCs in the industry.
- Have internal design brainstorming sessions on diversity, including employees that represent the minority community at large.
- Invite students from marginalized communities to visit the studio or firm.
- Demand to be a part of projects that affect your POC or at-large minority community.
- Most importantly, as a POC, embrace your authentic self in “white spaces.”
We are in charge of building the diverse and inclusive environment that we seek, so let’s start building together.
Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location where Steve Lucin mentors animation students and the amount of the scholarships his organization offers.